Fight Over Hydroexcavation Continues in Flint

Within the industry, hydroexcavation is widely considered a safe and effective digging method, but in the last couple of months, it’s become the focus of a feud between the state of Michigan and the city of Flint

Fight Over Hydroexcavation Continues in Flint

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Hydroexcavation remains at the center of a battle between Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Flint is in the midst of replacing all of its lead service lines, and until recently, hydroexcavation had been the method largely used by contractors to identify lines needing replacement. In June, Weaver suspended the use of hydroexcavation, claiming that some lines had been misidentified as copper when in reality they had portions spliced in that were lead or galvanized steel. The Michigan DEQ has responded by saying that there is no issue with hydroexcavation if it’s done properly, also pointing to the fact that it’s far less expensive than traditional digging.

The most recent development in the feud took the form of an Aug. 7 Facebook Live video in which Weaver can be seen standing in front of a large excavation extended from the curb to the middle of the street.

“With hydroexcavation, we would have missed this lead line because it’s out so far. While it looked like it was copper through hydroexcavation, had we not done some traditional excavation, we would have never discovered it,” Weaver says in the video. “This is what (the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) and the state need to come look at. They want us to hydroexcavate because it’s cheaper and they want to again put profit over the public health and well-being.”

The city is currently requiring contractors to use traditional digging methods to uncover a minimum of 10 feet of each service line.

According to a report in the Flint Journal, DEQ spokesperson Tiffany Brown responded to the video in an email:

“The one-minute video (of the mayor) doesn’t provide enough context or details of the situation at this particular excavation site. However, it appears that the portion of the service line that was being worked on was on the city side of the curb stop — this portion of the service line should be accurately reflected in the city’s records (as being lead). The DEQ believes that when executed properly, hydroexcavation is an extremely effective and reliable method of identifying service line composition. Hydroexcavation does not have to be limited to a singular hole of a limited size. These holes could very easily be expanded in size and have the advantage of being much less disruptive and far more efficient.”

Recently, Flint received a letter from the state Attorney General’s Office saying that the state won’t pay for excess costs if Flint insists on using a costlier excavation method. The letter states that Flint’s decision will cause the city to exceed an agreed-on cap for each address that needs a service line replaced. Per a settlement agreement, the city is replacing about 18,000 lead or galvanized steel service lines by 2020, and the state will pay up to $97 million of the cost of the project, with a cap of $5,000 per address where a service line is replaced. Using figures of $77 per residence with hydroexcavation compared to $1,702 per residence with traditional excavation, the state claims Mayor Weaver’s suspension of hydroexcavation will result in about $14.6 million more for the 9,000 excavations that remain.

“Please be advised that the state parties consider such excavation costs to be unreasonable and they will deny any request for reimbursement that exceeds the $5,000 average cost cap under the settlement agreement due to these unnecessary costs,” the Attorney General’s letter states, noting it could make attempts to get additional funding from the state Legislature difficult as well.

“If there is a perception that cost-effective approaches were available to reach the same result but were not utilized by Flint, it will make any attempts to secure additional funds more difficult,” the letter says.

Flint City Attorney Angela Wheeler recently responded in a letter:

“The (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) — the primary agency for the enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act — continues to ignore the facts relative to public health and safety … favoring cost savings, to the detriment of the public. The state has mentioned ‘cost’ no less than 12 times in this correspondence. I think this is the wrong approach, and I sincerely hope that the state and the Michigan DEQ carefully consider the human impact at stake, and work with the city to stop making costs its singular focus.”

Meanwhile, contractors continue their work out in the field, identifying and replacing lead lines.

“We’re incurring a huge amount of man-hours and loss of productivity as a result of (not being able to use hydroexcavation),” Joe Parks, project manager for Goyette Mechanical, told TV station WJRT Channel-12

He says Goyette Mechanical is using larger crews, specifically when getting close to other utilities underground.

“We can completely remove the earth around any of those surfaces very safely and with very minimal chances of damaging those utilities (with hydroexcavation). And, without having access to that tool, we’re forced to literally hand-dig with shovels to expose that,” he told WJRT Channel 12.

Parks says he understands Mayor Weaver’s concerns, but that even with hydroexcavation, his crews had been checking both the homeowner’s side and the street side of service lines.

“When we take that one tool out of the toolbox, it just limits the efficiency and productivity that we can have and the safety of the work as well,” Parks told WJRT Channel 12.

Goyette Mechanical has submitted documentation to the mayor’s office stating its concerns in order to be able to use hydroexcavation again. The company has also formally requested additional pay for past and future service line work due to the extra time it's spending by not being able to use hydroexcavation. According to a report in the Flint Journal, Goyette Mechanical estimates that its pipe replacement costs have increased about 8 percent and its exploratory excavation costs have increased about 9 percent because of the prohibition on hydroexcavation.

But for Martha Brown Custom Builders, the feud between Flint and the state has meant not working at all. The company had been awarded a hydroexcavation contract for line identification only, but has been told to stop work until further notice. Owner Martha Brown says she has had to lay off employees who planned to work on the Flint contract through the fall.

"All these people are out of work," Brown told the Flint Journal. "They had no place to go ... I'm very disappointed (but) I hope this is worked out."

Sources: The Flint Journal; WJRT Channel 12


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